Drug court is working
Since its inception seven years ago, on Nov. 1, 2007, the Becker-Clay County Drug Court Program has, in many ways, been a model of success for its counterparts in other areas of the country.
“Since the inception of our drug court in 2007, not one of our graduates has committed a new crime,” said Becker County Attorney Michael Fritz, who was part of the committee tasked with creating the original drug court, and continues to be part of its support team.
Though the rate of recidivism among drug court graduates in Clay County is not quite zero, it’s still quite low, noted Becker-Clay Drug Court Coordinator Don Kautzmann.
“We’ve had 51 total graduates (in both counties), and of those, 43 have remained law-abiding and out of trouble,” Kautzmann said.
“I think the major reason drug courts work is because there’s such an intensive level of supervision,” said Seventh District Court Judge Lisa Borgen, who is credited with spearheading efforts to initiate the two-county drug court program back in 2007.
“There’s intensive treatment, accountability to the judge, on a weekly basis — which I think makes a huge difference — and we require them to make real life changes,” Borgen added.
“If they don’t have their GED (or high school diploma), they’re required to get it, and they’re required to have a job or be a full-time student,” Borgen said.
“They need to have a valid driver’s license to graduate,” Fritz said.
“And they’re required to be current on their child support, if they have a child support obligation to meet,” said Kautzmann.
But all these “life changes” aren’t made in a vacuum, Borgen added.
“We really get into their lives, and help them change,” she said.
“We give them all the tools they need to stay clean and sober,” Kautzmann added.
One of the biggest changes they are asked to make is that “we require them to get new friends,” Borgen said — specifically, friends who are not drug and alcohol users.
“You can’t stay clean and sober when you’re hanging out with drug users and drunks,” she added.
In many cases, that requires the drug court participants to distance themselves from family members who are addicts, Borgen said — which can be an extremely painful and difficult process.
But one of the biggest keys to the program’s success, she continued, is that the participants are not required to go it alone in making all these changes — they have a support team in place that is dedicated to ensuring they do well.
“It just doesn’t work until you’ve got a support system and people who really believe in and care about you,” said Borgen.
“When they (drug court participants) come back in for their weekly appearance, and they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, the judge will praise them,” Kautzmann said. “For some of them it’s probably the first positive feedback they’ve had in their lives.”
The drug court support team includes a judge; prosecutor; law enforcement officer; social worker, who does the initial chemical use assessment and helps set up a treatment program; a probation agent, and a surveillance agent (aka compliance checker), who is tasked with doing random drug tests on the participants, several times a week.
Borgen said that the judge, prosecutor, social worker and probation agent on the team are usually the same for both counties, while the law enforcement officer who sits in on the drug court sessions tends to be a little more flexible.
Drug court is typically held once a week — Wednesdays in Clay County, and Thursdays in Becker County. Because of this, a limited number of slots in the program are available in each county: Clay County has 20 slots available, while Becker County has 10.
The program is divided into four phases: As individuals move from one phase to the next, slots open up for new participants.
“I think the slots we have in each county are perfect right now,” said Borgen. “We’re rarely so full that we have to turn people away.”
Part of the reason for that, Borgen added, is the criteria for determining who qualifies for drug court, and who doesn’t.
First of all, the crime has to specifically involve drugs, not alcohol, Borgen said.
“But there are a lot of people charged with drug crimes who don’t qualify,” she added. “If they’re a high-level drug dealer, we’re not going to take them in, and if they have a criminal history of assaultive behavior or use of weapons, we’re not going to take them in.”
Exceptions can be made, on a case-by-case basis, but “we have to balance (their need) with public safety,” she continued. “We don’t want to jeopardize the program by bringing in people who are violent.”
Though some exceptions are already being made, there are those who think a few more high-level drug offenders should be given the necessary waivers for admittance into the program.
One of them is Joe Parise, who serves as manager of the public defender’s office for both Becker and Clay counties.
“In Clay County, we see more fourth and fifth degree drug offenders being found eligible for drug court, and very few people charged with more serious offenses seem to be invited in,” Parise said. “In Becker County, they’ve taken a little more of a gamble with some of those people, I think.”
Parise noted that there has been some research done with drug courts in other areas that supports the idea of bringing in higher-level, non-violent drug offenders, because “those offenders who have more to lose (i.e., those facing long-term prison sentences) tend to do better. So there’s some wisdom, in my view, in using drug court for those persons that are charged with some more serious offenses — not in all cases, but in many, there’s more of a likelihood that they’re going to invest themselves (in succeeding).”
Nevertheless, Parise noted, he’s very much in favor of the drug court program overall.
“We’re advocates (for those charged with criminal offenses), and that’s who we’re working for,” he said. “Any effort that looks at trying to get a person cleaned up, to get them back with their families and become productive members of society, and not put them back in prison, how that can be anything but a win?”
Fritz agreed, and noted that being a part of the drug court program has also been very rewarding from a personal standpoint.
“It’s rewarding to see these people tackle their addiction, see them get out of the criminal justice system and plug themselves in as productive members of society,” Fritz said. “It’s been pretty darn successful — I wouldn’t support it if it wasn’t.”
Follow reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.